Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged the EU to support Western Balkan states’ efforts to join the bloc and to not create more conditions for accession.
The Western Balkans have sought EU membership for decades and comprise Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.
After a veto by Bulgaria, an EU member, the start of membership negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia was postponed, despite them having fulfilled the criteria.
The departing German Chancellor had earlier said it was in the bloc’s strategic interests to integrate the Balkan states.
“The EU must keep its word and not always come up with new conditions again and again because it doesn’t have any interest – perhaps due to domestic reasons in some countries – to push forward the process of accession.
“That causes disappointment, and I can understand that disappointment. We should trust each other,” Ms Merkel said in Albania.
But she insisted that “every German chancellor will have a heart for this region” because many people from the region now live and work in Germany
Ms Merkel has also urged Serbia and other countries in the region to improve democratic reforms to join.
The EU’s stalled interest in expansion and the years of diplomatic crises it has faced since Britain voted to leave the bloc have led the Balkan states to forge alliances with Russia and China, among other powers.
“All of us who are already members of the European Union should always make clear to ourselves that there is an absolute geo-strategic interest for us to really include these countries into the EU,” Ms Merkel said alongside the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, in the country’s capital, Belgrade.
“There are also influences from other regions in the world and if the European Union doesn’t move fast enough … then, of course, one is forced to arrange oneself with other partners.
“As German Chancellor and a member of the European Union, I always make it clear to ourselves how important it is for the European Union to get closer to these countries.”
Ms Merkel has led Germany since 2005 but did not run for re-election this year. The country will hold a general election on September 26.
Mr Vucic, a former ultranationalist, praised her as a true ally who during her 16 years in charge managed “to maintain peace” in the Balkans, which went through wars in the 1990s.
“She was undoubtedly the true leader of Europe,” he said. “I have a fear who will replace her.”
Mr Vucic has been widely considered a strong ally of Ms Merkel in the Balkans, despite his growing autocratic tendencies, which include stifling independent media, ignoring the rule of law and interfering in free and fair elections.
Those three foundations of democracy are key conditions for any country wanting to join the 27-nation EU.
Ms Merkel has never publicly criticised Mr Vucic for his undemocratic policies.
Many believe she felt he was the only Serb leader who could find a negotiated solution for Kosovo, a breakaway former Serbian province.
Serbia and its allies Russia and China do not recognise Kosovo’s independence, while the US, Germany and most of the West do.
“I think that honesty in our talks and the ability to listen to each other and then develop doable steps from this characterises our relationship,” Ms Merkel said Monday.
“I got to know Aleksandar Vucic as a person who makes no false promises and who also tries to implement what he promises.”
She urged Serbia to make “further steps in the direction of the rule of law, democracy, plurality of society”.
In the Albanian capital, Tirana, Ms Merkel also met the leaders of the other Western Balkan states that are striving for EU membership.